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In-depth President Xi’s Second Term: Prospects for Japan-China Relations
The Belt and Road Initiative: Responding to Beijing’s Ambitious Endeavor

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2018.06.13]

China’s Belt and Road Initiative aims to promote infrastructure development over a broad area encompassing Eurasia and parts of Africa and the Pacific. It is a major element of President Xi Jinping’s drive to increase China’s international influence. How should Japan and the rest of the international community respond to this ambitious undertaking?

An Initiative Serving both International and Domestic Objectives

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is said to have been originally proposed in a speech delivered by President Xi Jinping during a visit to Kazakhstan in 2013. It was based on a number of regional diplomatic undertakings that Beijing had been promoting since the administration of his predecessor, Hu Jintao. These efforts had produced results including the formation of cooperative frameworks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, and a group of 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe, along with the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The Belt and Road concept—originally styled “One Belt [and] One Road” in English—represented President Xi’s desire to bring these frameworks together and to present the various infrastructure-building projects being conducted in these regions as part of a single broad endeavor.

The Belt and Road proposal was also motivated by domestic economic considerations. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which set off a global recession, China had overinvested and found itself with excess production capacity. It seems likely that the new initiative was in part aimed at dealing with this excess and giving a boost to the many state-owned enterprises involved in infrastructure construction around the country. They were short of work because of the drying up of demand in this sector following the completion of a round of projects within China; the Belt and Road Initiative offered the prospect of construction work for them in other countries.

Favorable Conditions Bring Progress

The Belt and Road Initiative is not just for show; it has actually made surprisingly good progress, thanks in part to favorable international conditions. The presentation of this proposal coincided with the shrinkage of investment from Japan and the West and an increase in the number of authoritarian regimes, which advanced countries are inclined to shun. These developments made aid and investment from China more attractive. Chinese assistance generally comes in large amounts, the application process is simple and quick, and it is not accompanied by demands relating to democracy or human rights. To be sure, a fair number of the projects undertaken with this assistance have not gone well, but countries in the Belt and Road area and in Africa as a whole have been tending to choose China as their source of support.

As the Belt and Road Initiative progresses relatively smoothly, China has also been deliberately getting involved in the provision of international public goods—not just traditional infrastructure like railways, port facilities, and roads, but also advanced, comprehensive systems, such as its satellite navigation system for global positioning, facial recognition technology for public safety, and the Alipay cashless payment platform. This involvement seems to have emerged as a new trend under the Xi Jinping administration. During the previous administration of Hu Jintao, Beijing actively sought to take part in the shaping of global governance, but it fell short in the creation of international public goods.

Aside from the provision of international public goods in physical form, a notable feature of the Xi administration has been its drive to offer a model for regional order. This can be seen, for example, in President Xi’s unveiling of his new Asian security concept in May 2014. Back in the early years of this century, it was not common for the Chinese government to make public declarations about Asia, but now Beijing is seeking to become a source of visions for the region.

A Testing Ground for Xi’s “New Type” of International Relations

During 2017, the Belt and Road Forum held in May featured the new initiative as a diplomatic achievement of Xi’s first term as president, and at the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October, Xi identified this initiative as an element of his proposed “new type” of international relations—a series of partnerships based on economic ties. The Belt and Road Initiative has been positioned as a testing ground for achievement of this type of international relations.

The area encompassed by the new initiative includes most of Eurasia, along with East Africa, North Africa, and part of the Pacific, and the idea is to extend China’s partnerships with countries in this area while investing in their infrastructure and strengthening state-to-state and private-sector ties.

As China has advanced this initiative, international assessments of it have begun to change. Most of the developing countries in the covered area have come to accept investment from China, even though they are aware of the problems in the Belt and Road concept. And in 2017 Japan started to display a positive view of the initiative, but elsewhere, such as in Western countries and India, which had previously shown favorable attitudes toward strengthening of economic ties with China, critical views of the initiative came to be heard.

This contrasting set of changes reflects the difference between Japan and other countries in their prevailing attitudes toward China. In the West and other places, such as India, wariness toward China rose from its previously low level, while in Japan, where the level of wariness was high, it declined. At the June 2017 International Conference on the Future of Asia organized by Nikkei Inc., Prime Minister Abe Shinzō voiced an adjustment of his stance regarding the Belt and Road Initiative, expressing a positive assessment of it—though subject to a number of conditions, such as that it is “critical for infrastructure to be developed through procurement that is transparent and fair” and that it is “essential for projects to be economically viable and to be financed by debt that can be repaid, and not to harm the soundness of the debtor nation’s finances.”(*1) Late in 2017, the Abe administration presented some specific areas in which Japan and China could cooperate, such as distribution and the environment.

(*1) ^ https://japan.kantei.go.jp/97_abe/statement/201706/1222768_11579.html. Accessed June 2, 2018.

  • [2018.06.13]

Editorial Planning Committee chair of Nippon.com and professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), 21 seiki no Chūka: Shū Kinpei Chūgoku to Higashi Ajia (The Sinic World in the Twenty-First Century: Xi Jinping’s China and East Asia), and other works.

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